DEFAULTING ON THE NATION’S DEFENSE
A Commentary by Sen. Leila M. de Lima
On May 9, President Duterte told newly promoted generals and flag officers of the AFP that he will soon be explaining to the top officials of the AFP and the PNP his “attitude” towards China in relation to the latter’s deployment of forces in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). He claims that what he will be conveying to the AFP is his take on an important “play of geopolitics” in the region.
On the other side of the WPS, Vietnam has just demanded China to withdraw its missiles from the Spratly Islands. Like the Philippines in the Spratlys, Vietnam had been, to a greater degree, at the receiving end of Chinese military action in the Paracel Islands. It knows what it means to lose territory to superior Chinese forces. In the same way that it resisted in the Paracel Islands, it does not intend to be enveloped by Chinese military forces in the Spratlys.
Vietnam’s clear response to China’s actions is not in any way shared by Malacanang. For its part, Malacanang is rambling incoherence. It is still verifying whether it has the capacity to verify the presence of Chinese missiles, even after China has already admitted that indeed it has installed the missiles. As it turns out, this is because the President will be sharing to the rest of the defense community his “attitude” towards China only now. This is probably another one of Duterte’s moments where he reveals his “enlightened wisdom” on a complex matter to subordinates, as only he is capable of such enlightenment.
Something is not right with the fact that it is only now that Duterte will be meeting with the top officials of the AFP and the PNP to explain his national security and geo-political policy on China and the WPS. This is strange, because national security and defense policies are supposed to be arrived at by the President in consultation and in collaboration with his security officials and the top brass of the AFP.
Policies that concern the nation’s defense and security are not decided by one man’s personal musings and inclinations, even if he is the President and Commander-in-Chief. National security and defense are the core competence and reason for existence of our security organizations, especially the AFP. It is not the President who whimsically crafts such policies out of the blue and decides to share this with the country’s defense community whenever he fancies to do so. Under a government that operates its security and defense network in a normal manner, it is the AFP, together with the intelligence services, who comes up with a national security and defense framework and proposes it to the President. It is not the other way around.
This is where the AFP has been remiss in its duty to the nation and to the people. It has abrogated its role in shaping and directing the Philippine national defense agenda by simply submitting to presidential prerogative by default and inaction. There appears to be a lack of official concern coming from the AFP on the pro-China foreign policy the DFA and Malacanang has taken, and its implications on national security and defense interests in the WPS.
National defense and security have taken the back seat in this new pro-China policy, and the national defense community is partly to blame for this. The isolated grumblings from some quarters in the AFP are only the manifestation of what went wrong inside our defense establishment when it lost the WPS by default to Duterte’s “masterful” “geo-political” strategizing which he did not even think of sharing with the AFP.
That it is only now that the President is going to brief the AFP on his national security agenda regarding China is not only worrisome. It exposes to us the true danger that we are facing. And this is the fact that our current national security and defense policy framework was crafted without the benefit of any advice or input whatsoever from the country’s foremost national security and defense organization, the AFP. This is what Malacanang’s pronouncement amounts to. It is only now that the President will be explaining to the top brass of the AFP his pro-China policy and what it means to our interests in the WPS.
This appalling state of affairs in our national security and defense is manifested in the treasonous pronouncements of Malacanang in light of the deployment of Chinese missiles in the Spratly Islands. While Vietnam has already protested and demanded from China the withdrawal of its Spratlys missiles, Malacanang offers the lame retort that it will stay neutral in this “geo-political” spat between China and the United States, even while the missiles are installed right smack on the Philippines’ own doorsteps.
Because of Duterte’s so-called policy of “neutrality” that is now only going to be shared by him to the AFP, a Philippine protest as simple as demanding the missiles’ withdrawal, like what Vietnam did, was not resorted to by Malacanang. Instead, what Malacanang is saying is that this is a matter between China and the US, and that it is only now that the President will be explaining to the AFP the President’s personal assessment of the “geo-political” basis of this “neutrality” policy.
I don’t know about the AFP, but I for one will not put much trust on the Davao warlord who is known for appeasing and accommodating the local communist movement in exchange for rural political support, the same thing he is now doing with the Communist Party of China for their international support. Elevating a local warlord’s provincial policy of appeasement to the international level is not exactly a credible “geo-political” strategy that can serve as a basis for a national security and defense framework. Whatever Duterte’s “geo-political” take on the West Philippine Sea issue is, it cannot be more sophisticated than his warlord approach to local security issues as then Mayor of Davao City.
Duterte’s so-called policy of “neutrality” on the WPS issue is exactly the kind that he practiced in Davao, when he exercised “neutrality” in his dealings with the NPA and the AFP, all the while serving as an elected Mayor of the Republic. Stripped of Malacanang’s “geo-political” garbage, Duterte is simply doing the same thing now. But the problem is that this is going to produce the same results as his “neutrality” policy in Davao. Duterte’s actions then primarily benefitted the expansion and entrenchment of the NPA in the Davao region, at the expense of the AFP.
Exactly the same thing is happening now with Duterte’s lame response to the installation of Chinese missiles and China’s threat to the AFP forces still stationed in the Spratlys. Duterte’s “geo-political” strategy of “neutrality” is benefitting the expansion and entrenchment of China in the WPS, at the expense of Philippine territorial interests and the presence of AFP forces in Ayungin Shoal, Pag-asa Island, and the rest of the Philippine-controlled Kalayaan Group of Islands. Duterte’s “neutrality” actions are putting AFP forces in the WPS in a critical situation, even imminent peril. This is also what happened then to AFP forces fighting the local NPA rebels coddled by the Davao City warlord.
That Duterte has simply rehashed and recycled his Davao NPA policy of appeasement and accommodation on China and its occupation of the WPS is too plain to miss. It would truly be disheartening for the entire AFP to naively fall for the same con act the second time around. This is a President with a record of sacrificing national security for political expediency as then Mayor of Davao City. His actions, whether as Mayor of Davao or as President of the Philippines, will always be dictated by his personal political survival, rather than the national interest.
An AFP and defense establishment submitting to Duterte’s neutrality “geo-politics” by default and without question will be the end of a rational national defense agenda as we have known it in the past. In practical terms on the ground, this will only continue to strengthen China’s position in the WPS to the detriment of our troops who are still out there, not knowing the AFP has already lost the will to defend them.